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Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / 27 Feb 2010 under the heading: Asphyxiation of the ‘American dream'

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Nine-eleven (9/11) fiction can be a high wire act; making it the centrepiece is a temptation many newcomers might succumb to. Several things set H M Naqvi’s debut novel apart from other books of the same genre, books that draw upon 9/11 for inspiration. The author, by comparison, never allows that instance to eclipse the stories of his central characters or their fractured world even when the lengthening shadows reach out to swathe their lives in momentary darkness. Consequently, the boom is muffled, and instead of a sudden fall into chaos, the descent is slow. In Home Boy, H M Naqvi grapples with the complexities of a new world order and the communities caught in the throes of this change.

Seen through the eyes of Shehzad aka Chuck, it captures the full spectrum of an immigrant’s life in the US by introducing three boys of Pakistani origin — an expatriate, a green card holder, and a born and bred New Jersey man — youngsters as deeply immersed in New York’s culture as they are tied to their Pakistani heritage. Ali Chaudhry (AC), a “charming rogue”, Jamshed Khan (Jimbo) the “bona fide American” (page 3) and Chuck — the expatriate who embraced the City and its ways with a vigour — whose lifestyle choices are bound to make some readers flinch. While it is difficult to identify with their carefree living and studied debauchery, the soon to be fragmented lives are certain to strike a chord.

At times the story feels more autobiographical than contrived, though the author is quick to issue a disclaimer that it is not. According to him these are fictional constructs, composites drawn from different people. And yet, the core scenes stem from a real enough place: a place where a passer-by feels distant reverberations of a collapsing world, where civil rights have been trounced by race and religion, a place where the void left in the aftermath has been populated by fear and a literal world is littered with virtual minefields. In a telling scene, the protagonist confronts two brawlers intent on knocking down the ‘Arabs’, observing that they were not just contending with each other but with the crushing momentum of history (page 23).

Naqvi carefully sidesteps the debris left in the wake of the tragedy in this fast paced, visceral ride where morality takes a backseat, as he lets words go on a rampage, painting the city life in lurid hues. Seen from this vantage point, the New York one knows is obscured in an unfamiliar haze. The prose is crisp; it moves with feral grace and dazzles with an obscene brilliance. But where the poet in him makes one gape in wonder, the graphic descriptions leave one cold.

The characters are deftly executed; Mini Auntie hovers in the background as the pillar of Pakistani expat community; the Duck occupies a swank apartment and is introduced in the book with much fanfare as someone who possesses a talent for introductions and one New York City cabbie is seen weaving his way in and out of Chuck’s life.

Chuck’s narrative takes copious amounts of detours, opening the doorway to two distinct worlds and trying to be faithful to each. Consequently, one finds Urdu, Punjabi and Yiddish scattered amongst the prose. The story segues from New York to Karachi, using one as the staging area and the other as a backdrop. However, the Karachi of Chuck’s childhood does not capture the tumultuousness associated with the mid 1980s, and is more reminiscent of the late 1970s.

A wide-angled shot pans to include the lives of the immigrant communities: from AC’s aunt, a one woman institution with an open door policy for her friend’s children, to Jamshed’s father, “a retired foreman who raised a son and a daughter and several notable edifices on either sides of the Hudson” (page 3). It seeks to establish Chuck’s strong ties to his real and adopted homeland. One visible through yearnings for home in the elaborate sequences starring desi cuisine; the other punctuated by a naive belief that he had claimed the city and the city had duly reciprocated leaving all of them “content in celebrating themselves and their city with libation” (page 6). Naqvi asserts that one could define oneself any way one felt like before 9/11. Of course, afterwards they were boxed in the specifications left by 19 Saudis.

When asked why he settled upon 9/11 as a subject matter, he responds that every tragedy inspires a body of literature, but he started writing in 2003 before the blitz of 9/11 literature hit the market. The author may be a rookie in the world of literary giants, but has managed to create quite a stir back home and abroad. The book has received rave reviews, and made it to the Huffington Post list of top 10 books (2009).

He calls Home Boy a comedy, mystery, coming of age and serves it up with a generous dash of humour, a sprinkle of irony and a smattering of some good old-fashioned slang on the side. This poignant tale is likely to resonate with the Pakistani diaspora in the US, for beneath its deceptively simple imagery lies a sombre realisation that the slow asphyxiation of the ‘American dream’ has already begun.


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